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Lady Brains and Delusional Minds

Posted in Book Reviews on January 3rd, 2011

Delusions of Gender

How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference

By Cordelia Fine

The Female Brain

By Louann Brizendine

Just-so stories abound in our media about how women “naturally” talk too much, are over-emotional, bad at math, or just plain stupid. How much of it was earnest science badly reported and how much of it was just mean-spirited evolutionary psychology, I never knew. And somewhere, lurking in the darker corners of my brain was the thought that maybe it was all true; and grounded in strong, peer-reviewed science that was easily replicated. But when those doubts loomed, I would always stop myself – the difference between men and women on a genetic level is the difference between XX and XY. How could having a little more genetic material make me a stupid, frivolous, gold-digger compared to all the smart, serious, chivalrous men? It never made sense, but was that because I had a puny lady brain?

I read Louann Brizendine’s “The Female Brain” immediately before “Delusions of Gender.” It had been sitting on my bookshelf since it’s controversial publication. I read it first; knowing that it is one of the works Fine is highly critical of.

Brizendine acknowledges my quandary – if men and women have almost identical genetic makeup’s, how could our brains be so different as a result of biology alone? Her answer: hormones. The way I understood her hypothesis was that she saw men’s and women’s brains as computers with identical hard drive space and RAM. But estrogen and testosterone were like different operating systems – an iPhone and a Droid. This is a seductively simple point of view, and absurdities appear quickly. Brizendine actually suggests that women should schedule job interviews or oral exams on the days of their menstrual cycle when estrogen levels are highest because there is evidence that estrogen can increase verbal skills. When she also recommends not making important decisions while experiencing PMS or menstruation, it’s near impossible to take seriously.

Fine’s work is cut out for her as she proceeds to destroy Brizendine’s book and others like it (John Gray, etc). Her book is divided into three parts, “Half-Changed World, Half-Changed Minds”, “Neurosexism,” and “Recycling Gender.” She makes a convincing case that there is less evidence for hard wired sex based differences in behavior than most people think there is, and that actually there’s a lot of reasons to think men and women are similar in almost of the ways that the brain works.

It is common for parents to state that they know gender differences are real because although they have tried to be egalitarian, their little girl just loves her princess costume, and refuses to wear any color but pink. Fine questions the assumption that the parents are capable of bringing their children up in a world free of information about gender stereotypes. If all of the media they consume tells children how their gender is supposed to act, simply offering both a truck and a doll isn’t going to cut it. She then goes on to talk about how children, especially at preschool age, are trying to learn their place in the world. They don’t understand much about nationality, religion, or cliques. But they can latch on to the very salient gender stereotypes all around them.

The strongest evidence Fine presents for women’s intellectual equality with men are in the studies of what is called stereotype threat. The theory is that if you remind a person that they fit a stereotype of a person who is bad at the task at hand (math, for example) they will spend a lot of mental energy thinking about that fact rather than the actual task. One of the most shocking studies presented in “Delusions of Gender” was on this topic. The participants were enrolled in a calculus class. On average, the men and women had the same grades. In one group, the students were given a very difficult test and told that it was designed to try and find out what makes some people better at math than others. The average score was 19% correct for both genders. In the other group, students were told the same thing, but it was added that “despite testing on thousands of students, no gender difference had ever been found.” The women in this group scored a whopping 30% correct. If this evidence is to be believed, the amount of energy women spend trying to combat internalized sexism is tremendous. When these messages permeate our culture and our brains, they take so much away from our potential abilities. It may in fact be true that women have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good.

Finally, Fine makes the case that much neuroscience reporting is inaccurate, and favors studies that “prove” old tropes about gender to be true rather than communicating what was actually found. For example, women have a larger corpus collosum than men. (To the non-psychology majors reading: it’s the part of the brain in between the right and left hemispheres; what relays information back and forth.) This is said to explain things like why women are better at multi-tasking, and why men can’t talk about their feelings. The problem is that its simply not true; not only have fMRI imaging studies of the brain failed to show that women have more activity between hemispheres than men, but the fact is that if corpus collosum is correlated with anything it’s body size. People with larger bodies require slightly larger brains. “A large brain is simply not a smaller brain scaled up. Larger brains create different sorts of engineering problems and so – to minimize energy demands, wiring costs, communication times – there are physical reasons for different arrangements and different sized brains.” This is quite an important fact and it is routinely ignored.

Some reviewers on Amazon.com have criticized Fine’s sarcastic humor and at times downright flippant tone. I found her delightful. It can be tedious and overwhelming to realize that so much of what you have been taught is wrong. But Fine does it with style and is never tedious. One of my favorite parts was when she skewers those who spout sexist beliefs under the cover of “speaking truth to power.” Fine reigns them in and does the world a great public service.

19 Responses to “Lady Brains and Delusional Minds”

  1. Tweets that mention Lady Brains and Delusional Minds -- Topsy.com Says:

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  2. gamba Says:

    Truth is, i’d always wondered about this gender thing. Despite what i’ve been told severally, i usually noticed something diferent, here in school, my girlfriend will either score A or B in math while am yet to score a C grade. Yet she believe am the best. I think its what “we” (the tradition) told them that made them. I think i’ll have to introduce her to this adress it could build her. And am here via Daylight Atheism.

  3. Elizabeth Says:

    Hi Gamba. Thanks for your comment. You sound very supportive of your girlfriend and that is wonderful.

  4. Steve Bowen Says:

    This book has been on my radar for a while (the cover is funnier on the U.K version by the way, comes in two flavours a boy doll dressed in pink or a girl doll dressed in blue).
    If there really is no hormonal influence on brain function and it’s all cultural I’m not sure how this squares with known hormonal effects on sexual orientation (foetal exposure to testosterone linked to lesbians for example). Also I believe there are Chimp studies which show similar behavioural differences between sexes (although I guess they could be cultural too, more contention).
    Given the wide variation in human behaviour and thought patterns I would guess that even where (if?) genetic / developmental factors do create a gender dichotomy the overlap would be considerable and disentangling the cultural aspect frought with difficulty. I’ll definately read this now though, good review.

  5. Elizabeth Says:

    Hi Steve, thanks for commenting!

    Fine actually does address some of those arguments in her book. She presents some of the studies done on girls with CAH – girls that were exposed to higher levels of testosterone in utero. There are some differences, they are more likely to be lesbians, etc. She says that the results are inconclusive. Are the girls drawn to “tomboyish” activities because their different hormone levels naturally make football and cowboys more appealing, or do the higher levels of testosterone simply make the more drawn to anything that our culture identifies as masculine? If it’s the latter, is it that different from a non-CAH girl wearing a princess dress because she thinks that that’s how girls should act? A CAH girl might “feel” more male and express herself accordingly.

    Also, with regard to the book cover, there is a similar book in the US – Pink Brian, Blue Brain.

  6. Mrnaglfar Says:

    The idea that evolution has shaped men and women to have different bodies but not different minds is a strange one indeed. I never have been able to wrap my brain around that thought and not come away laughing at it.

    And despite that comment, evolutionary psychology is not mean-spirited, only people. Having studied under Gallup, I can assure you there is nothing mean-spirited about that study. I’m not sure what you’re implying is mean about it.

    While we’re on the subject, there is no such thing as non-evolutionary psychology. Just like there aren’t any explanations that aren’t “just-so stories”. There are just those “just-so” stories that are more correct and those that are not.

    Is there variability in the extent to which certain aspects of our psychology will develop? Absolutely. Is there a lot of learning that goes on? Of course. Can performance on some tasks be altered relative to gender with different environments? You bet. When we talk about differences between male and female psychologies, are we talking about statistical realities that do not always apply to each and every person (i.e. men are on average taller, but that does not mean every man is taller than every woman)? Yes, we are.

    Are there real statistical differences? Without question. Do those differences hold across cultures the world over? That depends on what trait we’re talking about, but often that answer will be yes.

    Setting up an intellectual dichotomy between “culture” and “biology” as the causes of behavior is a bad idea. Cultures reflect different aspects of our psychology, and our psychology is the product of our biology. Culture itself is the result of our biology, not some amorphous casual agent floating around somewhere. Granted, cultures throughout time and place have reflected different combinations of parts of our psychology to varying degrees, but that doesn’t effect the point any.

    Further, people who set up the dichotomy between “natural/hard-wired” as opposed to “learned/plastic” are doing the world another intellectual disservice for the same reason. Learning itself is an adaptation, and what people learn as well as how easily they learn it, is also a product of biology.

    Finally, comparing the sheer volume of DNA that is shared between men and women against the amount that is not is no way to determine either the effects of those differences or their significances. After all, we share an overwhelming amount of our DNA in common with chimps, yet the little that we don’t share amounts to quite a lot of differences, despite our similarities. Depending on the timing in development that some genes get turned on or off can have a huge effect on the effect of that gene and its magnitude.

  7. Elizabeth Says:

    Hi Mrnaglfar!

    I don’t mean that evolutionary psychology itself is mean spirited, and perhaps the broad study of whether or not semen makes women happy can be done neutrally. But evolutionary psychology has a public relations problem. Something can be scientifically true and politically incorrect. (Americans are 5% of the world’s population and emit 25% of the world’s pollution.) And if the goal is to get people and policymakers to act on one’s conclusions, public relations are extremely important.

    That study gives credence to the narrative that all an unhappy woman needs is to get laid, and I consider that narrative to be mean spirited because it renders invisible anything else that could be wrong in a woman’s life, not to mention the existence of lesbians and women who cannot take hormonal contraception or do not want a child. It’s like the new research about a potential AIDS vaccine. Those researchers are extremely cautious about how the results are reported because they don’t want people to take the risk of having sex without condoms. I see no such caution in the Psychology Today article. Perhaps that’s the fault of the author of that post and not of your professor.

    I’m not sure what you mean when you say “there is no psychology that isn’t evolutionary psychology.” Is that like “There is no chemistry that isn’t physics?” I worked as a research assistant for four years in different psychology labs – clinical, cognitive and social and we never once talked about evolution. Were we doing it wrong? 😉

    I understand your point that it might be semantics to argue culture vs biology, but the evidence is quite convincing to a lay person about the plasticity of the brain. And event to a non lay person! The entire thrust of my senior seminar on cognitive neuroscience (in 2004) was about the plasticity of the brain, and how we used to think it kind of “gelled” but it probably continues to grow and change throughout our lives.

    Your point about chimps is a good one. But I didn’t get half of my DNA from a chimp. One of my X chromosomes is from a man, and your only X is from a woman. You might be right, I’m just not sold yet.

  8. Mrnaglfar Says:

    The idea that all unhappy women need is the right man to fuck them is indeed mean sounding. However, that study has nothing to do with that whatsoever. It has everything to do with the prospect that semen is an evolved chemical cocktail, the composition of which likely has effects on the female’s body. We already know that it does from studies in non-human animals. The author of the post itself doesn’t appear to be furthering that narrative you mentioned either. It doesn’t seem to be mentioned at all, unless I’m missing something.

    When I say there is no such thing as non-evolutionary psychology, what I mean is that our psychology is the product of our brains, which is the product of our genes, which are the product of evolution. Our psychologies are the process of evolution, and any statement one makes about what our psychologies are or what they are evolved to do is – implicitly – making an statement about our evolutionary history. It is only through this evolutionary framework that a solid, theoretical foundation for psychology can be laid. All that’s all evolutionary psychology really is: a framework through which one can ask better questions and more accurately understand data.

    Studying psychology without evolution is (not is like, is) studying biology without evolution. You can do it, but it puts you at a serious handicap for understanding the ‘why’ questions. Without that understanding you end up with ideas and theories that diverge, rather than unify, many of which make little to no sense (the blank slate being a prime example).

    There is no doubt that there is plasticity in the brain, but that plasticity itself is an evolved feature. It requires as much of an explanation as anything else. We’re certainly more or less plastic about certain subjects to varying degrees at various points in our development. Understanding that plasticity – and the ways in which it varies between individuals and genders – it a key component to figuring out how to better use and accurately manipulate it. In order to understand it you need a theoretical foundation. Evolutionary psychology provides that foundation.

    As for DNA, there really isn’t much one can conclude about its effects or importance on the sheer amount of that’s similar between individuals. DNA cannot be too different among members of the same species or they would cease to be members of the same species. However, even minor alterations in the genetic code can have huge effects or no noticeable effects, depending on when they act in development and what they act on. Two individuals could be genetically identical, barring a single mutation that causes one to fail to develop properly and die as a result.

    But all one needs to do to demonstrate sex differences is to return to the original idea I mentioned: How and why could evolution have outfitted males and females with different bodies (in terms of their reproductive potential and anatomy, fat and muscle mass, height, physical traits, among others) without also outfitting them with different minds? Once one comes to terms with the idea that non-brain physical sex differences are real, they can begin to also understand their likely implications both through studies of humans and non-humans.

  9. MissCherryPi Says:

    The first sentence mentions that women who don’t use condoms are less likely to commit suicide. It’s a powerful statement if true, we’re talking life and death here – and it isn’t qualified by any of the risks not using condoms could have. At best that’s irresponsible. It’s also not discussed in an evolutionary context at all. Like I said: bad PR.

    However, reading the BBC’s article on this, they actually got a direct quote saying

    And in New Scientist, it is explained

    men whose semen promotes long-term mood enhancement might have more chances to indulge in sexual activity.

    Ok, so that’s a better picture of what you were actually studying. But that didn’t prevent Psychology Today from running with the suicide angle or the teenage boys on digg from trying out the line on their girlfriends – even though the risk of depression or suicide from condom use was obviously not at all what Gallup meant to emphasize. This is exactly what Fine was talking about in the book when she was talking about neurosexism. Facts are twisted to fit into a cultural narrative. And just as climate scientists have to deal with people who can’t understand what “hide the decline” meant, evolutionary psychologists should understand the way their findings can be misused to reinforce messages that are actually harmful.

    Stereotype threat is a real phenomenon. It might even be an evolved trait having to do with living in a highly social environment. But it still provides a simple explanation for differences in abilities previously thought to be a product of sex alone.

  10. Mrnaglfar Says:

    The statement about suicide would be true in the case of that sample – barring the researchers fabricating data, which I don’t think they did – so I fail to see what’s so irresponsible about it. Since when is a true statement irresponsible?

    As to why the suicide finding is true is an open-ended question. The article does make mention that the correlation is not causation. What would be irresponsible would be someone assuming that it was. What would also be irresponsible is someone assuming that’s the case the world over before adequate replication. Or people assuming it’s actually not the case, potentially closing off avenues of otherwise productive research that could help prevent suicide.

    I do get the feeling the idea of a book (which, from the reviews, I gather is written based on very little actual published scientific source material) called “Delusions of Gender” written by someone who has a less than impressive publication record is championing ideas that fit into a certain cultural narrative: the narrative that there are no biological sex differences. A narrative that should have been put to bed along time ago because it’s empirically unsound.

    There is no finding that cannot be misused. I absolutely disagree that psychologists should censor their findings or wonder what questions to research based on the idea that some people will not understand them and others will try to twist them to their own means.

    The idea that there are no biological sex differences can be quite a harmful one, since it’s wrong. It can lead to implications of policy that are worthless at best and detrimental at worst. It can hinder the implications of actual effect policies. It can detract from research. It can create a new set of false narratives as for why people are the way the are.

  11. MissCherryPi Says:

    Since when is a true statement irresponsible?

    I think Psychology Today was being irresponsible in the way they reported the study. If the point of the study was about sperm/semen competition and how it might evolve to give men an advantage, or an advantage to women who had frequent sex, then leading with “Ditch the condom or wind up putting a gun in your mouth” isn’t good journalism. It’s irresponsible when you are suggesting readers do something risky that the author himself does not endorse.

    The book was based on a lot of published scientific source material. The bibliography was 38 pages for 239 of text. How many do you think would be appropriate? And Fine’s CV seems perfectly adequate.

    I didn’t mean to imply that anyone should censor their findings. I am in favor of free speech, a free press and academic freedom. The way those these freedoms mix together is complicated and it’s hard to tease out the impact science has on public policy. When trying to communicate ideas that seem counter-intuitive or are in any way controversial, simply publishing at the public is not an effective strategy. It’s naive to think when less than half of Americans accept the theory of evolution and fewer understand what the scientific process is that these concepts will be easily disseminated. It’s not wrong to observe that some findings are more easily co-opted than others.

    I don’t think that Fine was arguing that there are no biological sex differences at all. I think she was saying that they might not be what we think that they are. For example, she presented a study of eye gaze in newborns. The conventional wisdom is that baby girls are much more interested in faces, and there is evidence to support that. But if the children were observed away from their parents, in gender neutral clothing, by a researcher who did not know the gender of the baby, the sex differences in how long the child gazed at the face disappeared. The babies were pretty much Clever Hans with regard to eye gaze. This tells us something not only about human development but also that knowing a person’s gender will influence us in ways we are not aware of. It’s important to separate these implicit associations from the actual facts. Ask any woman currently performing in a symphony orchestra.

  12. Steve Bowen Says:

    Hmm the fact that women are culturally disadvantaged does not necessarily contradict the possibility there are actual neurological differences.
    The problem with us liberal types is that confirmation bias can tug us both ways. I want sexual orientation to be genetic/ developmental as it suits my politics but I am less enthusiastic about Male/Female differences being so. However the science speaks to both and in a very connected way.

  13. MissCherryPi Says:

    Yes, but how big could those differences be if they are so easily overcome?

    Forty-two male–female pairs, matched for ability, played two chess games via Internet. When players were unaware of the sex of opponent (control condition), females played approximately as well as males. When the gender stereotype was activated (experimental condition), women showed a drastic performance drop, but only when they were aware that they were playing against a male opponent. When they (falsely) believed to be playing against a woman, they performed as well as their male opponents.

  14. Mrnaglfar Says:

    Don’t you think that your reading of it is at least a tad extreme? The article never said if you don’t have unprotected sex you’ll kill yourself, or anything even close to it. It merely said that women that had more frequent unprotected sexual intercourse were statistically less likely to have attempted suicide. A true finding.

    Sure, people are stupid and will not understand the actual implications of that, as they probably won’t understand the implications of most findings published by any of the pop-science magazines. They won’t understand that correlation is not causation, as most students in college and some professors will not. But if public policy is being in any way informed by a magazine like psychology today, or if people are going to make life-altering decisions based on something they read in a magazine without looking into the matter a little more deeply, then there’s a bigger problem. A problem that has nothing at all to do with anything being “mean-spirited evolutionary psychology”.

    What you mean is mean-spirited people who will bend findings to their biased and incorrect points of view. Or people who will inaccurately report or act on what is published in a pop-magazine rather than what the authors are actually saying before looking a little deeper.

    As for the book, counting numbers of citations is no more valid of a way of determining how good those sources are anymore than counting shared amounts of DNA is a valid way of determining the effects of any differences. It’s not about the quantity of sources as much as it is about their quality.

    Having not read the book, I still feel safe in assuming that Fine only touches on some very peripheral sex differences – ones that are overwhelmingly more byproduct than adaptation, and probably not very substantial differences to begin with – and probably doesn’t do a very good job of addressing the issues at that. I feel confident in saying that because a book slightly under 200 pages of actual text can in no way have enough space to cover even close to some of the relevant source material. That would give each page of sources something around 5 pages of in-book text. Pulling out a copy of a book on hand, I counted 20 sources on one page of citations. You cannot cover even close to that amount of material in any more than the shallowest of ways in 5 pages.

    Using the example of eye-gaze you raised there, a number of thoughts pop into my mind immediately, but here’s the big one: when you place an infant in a highly abnormal scenario, you’re likely to see abnormal behavior. More to the point, if you take adaptations out of the environment for which they are adapted, they may well stop functioning as they otherwise would.

    And of course the gender of others influences our behavior towards them. For everyone. But that doesn’t mean that there are no biological sex differences or no reasons to for that differential behavior. Let’s look at the numbers on that Orchestra study:

    1970: Females were roughly 10% of the Orchestras
    1990s: Females were roughly 35% of the Orchestras

    So that’s a 25% gain over about 20 years. About 30% of that gain was attributed to blind auditions, meaning discrimination was accounting for about 7.5% of the composition of Orchestras if those numbers are accurate. While significant, it’s far from the full picture.

    The link is mum on the numbers of men and women that were likely to audition in the first place, which doesn’t really give us a good sense for the actual proportion of each gender that is ultimately picked or the extent that each sex is likely to attempt it. It’s mum on the duration of each sexes time of involvement in an Orchestra. The list goes on. And the sex difference didn’t disappear. Men would still have been 65% of the composition, a full 30% more than women. As to why specifically, I couldn’t confidently say, but there are some educated guesses I could make.

  15. MissCherryPi Says:

     What you mean is mean-spirited people who will bend findings to their biased and incorrect points of view. Or people who will inaccurately report or act on what is published in a pop-magazine rather than what the authors are actually saying before looking a little deeper.



    I still feel safe in assuming that Fine only touches on some very peripheral sex differences – ones that are overwhelmingly more byproduct than adaptation, and probably not very substantial differences to begin with

    The sex differences in grades on math tests, verbal skills, ability to read body languages are the ones that are the most frequently cited in our culture. For a book of this scope it would make sense to begin with those studies.

    When you place an infant in a highly abnormal scenario, you’re likely to see abnormal behavior. More to the point, if you take adaptations out of the environment for which they are adapted, they may well stop functioning as they otherwise would.

    Ok, but why would it make both the boys more likely to look at the face AND the girls less? That’s a very specific response don’t you think? 

    1970: Females were roughly 10% of the Orchestras
    1990s: Females were roughly 35% of the Orchestras 
    So that’s a 25% gain over about 20 years.

    It’s a 350% gain. And you are right, it’s not parity. But 20 years is not a long time when you consider that Symphony Orchestras have been around for over 400 years, and that women not allowed to audition for the first 300 or so of those. So we’ve had a quarter of the time and make up more than a quarter of the seats. 

  16. Mrnaglfar Says:

    As for the gaze study, I can’t confidently say much since I haven’t read the papers in question. I know infant gaze is an often unreliable measure for a lot of reasons, notably that infants are often rather non-complaint with experimenters wishes and test-retest reliability is fairly poor.

    Not knowing the literature, I can’t say for certain what the size of these effects were, which effects were replicated an which weren’t, along with the methodological soundness of each experiment in terms of method or the sample size. There could be gender differences there, or maybe there aren’t, or maybe there are but only in some contexts and not others. At the moment I can’t say. There are too many possibilities and I don’t have all the relevant information. What I would not do is take the word of a pop-science book at face-value, nor consider a single research paper that discounts those differences as the final word. At best, it’s a jumping off point for examining the actual research literature oneself.

    When it comes to the orchestra issue – just like with DNA -listing the amount of time that elapsed between women beginning to enter orchestras on a wider scale and now is no way of determining much of anything useful.

    Returning to the larger point, perhaps a bigger reason why people are opposed to the idea of biological sex differences is because they automatically – and incorrectly – associate “biology” with terms like “hard-wired” or “immutable”. As I’ve previously mentioned, plasticity itself is biological in nature. Richard Dawkins famously said something along the lines of “there are many more ways to be dead than there are to be alive”. The same holds true when discussing behavior and psychology; there are many more ways of acting in maladaptive ways or learning useless and incorrect things than there are adaptive ones. Organisms do not learn and act at random. Learning and mutability are often highly constrained, despite some plasticity – they need to be in order for anything useful to get done. To the extent that males and females have faced different and recurrent adaptive problems – which we know they have – there will be biological differences between the sexes in those areas.

    Having said that, I don’t think there ever was significant selective pressure on one sex over another when it comes to math ability, if much math ability was ever selected for at all. Men and women may well perform different in their ability to either read certain types of body language or may differentially respond to certain types of it. There would probably be remarkable overlap, however, given the social nature of our species. These are questions that need a solid evolutionary analysis, however. Saying there are differences or there aren’t are both evolutionary hypotheses.

    Another possibility for the rejection of biological causes is that people feel in order for there to be equality in society everyone has to be the same, so they simply assume there are no sex differences. If there are any differences between men and women, those differences are immediately explained all the difference in terms of either cultural conditioning or sexism, since any biological explanations are viewed as inherently offensive. This view is nonsense, of course, since if everyone was truly the same psychologically, evolution on that front would have ground to a halt.

    What I find amazing about it is that most all people have no trouble with biological explanations when it comes to different species, even social species closely related to us. Species look different and act differently from each other because of their biology couples with the environments that biology is adapted to. Many of them just like to feel that humans are somehow special; the exception to the rule that all the rest of life on this planet plays by.

    Males and females of other species are – to the best of my knowledge – not significantly any more or less genetically distinct than human males and females are. Once those blinders of political and moral sentiments regarding people have been stripped away, biological explanations seem a lot less scary. They are, however, just as correct.

  17. MissCherryPi Says:

    When it comes to the orchestra issue – just like with DNA -listing the amount of time that elapsed between women beginning to enter orchestras on a wider scale and now is no way of determining much of anything useful.

    It’s very important contextual information. You cannot make a comparison of the musical abilities between men and women if you do not take into account the fact that the opportunities for women have existed for a much shorter time span. If you and I are running a race and you get a 3 minute head start, and then someone remarks after the fourth minute that you are much farther ahead that would be true. But it wouldn’t be the whole story.

    I don’t think there ever was significant selective pressure on one sex over another when it comes to math ability, if much math ability was ever selected for at all. Men and women may well perform different in their ability to either read certain types of body language or may differentially respond to certain types of it. There would probably be remarkable overlap, however, given the social nature of our species. These are questions that need a solid evolutionary analysis, however. Saying there are differences or there aren’t are both evolutionary hypotheses.

    As an evolutionary psychologist, you personally might not believe the conclusions about math or social skills that Fine spent most of her book debunking. But they are a large portion of the evolutionary psychology that is reported in the media. Frivolous as you may think them to be, acting to debunk these theories is important. When people keep hearing that women are stupid, they will start to believe it.

  18. Mrnaglfar Says:

    I don’t think there’s any inherent difference between men and women’s ability to play music because I don’t suspect playing music was ever something that was specifically selected for. I would suspect there are other issues at play with regards to motivation to practice and play, likely a byproduct of male mating effort. I also suspect that analysis of musicians of all ages would bare me out on that. Which is of course not to say that such things are unchangeable. What it would help clarify is the conditions under which we are likely to be able to change it, were that our goal, as well as why things may be the way they are, which would aid our discussion as to whether changing it is a worthwhile idea or not.

    Differences in math ability could well be a byproduct of other things. While men and women could perform about equal on average, the proportion of men who perform at very high levels could be above that of women who do. Alternatively, women could in principle be better at math than men are, but are overwhelming more interested in activities that are not math-based and spend less time doing math or caring about it. Such a cause could well perpetuate itself socially by both women and men. There a lot of possibilities. However, to suggest that biology has nothing at all whatsoever to do with it is not a tenable suggestion. The real question is “in what ways does biology effect the trait in question”.

    And for the record, I’ve never actually heard any evolutionary psychologist call women stupid. I would add that your link that claims as much never makes that claim, nor is the link written by the researcher in question. It only deals with those of exceptional IQ – a measure that has issues of its own. You made the jump from “a rather modest average difference in IQ coupled with an over-representation of males who score very high” to labeling it “women are just plain stupid”. Just like you did when you labeled one link “mean-spirited”. The tone with which you wrote that paragraph does not appear to accurately reflect its content.

  19. MissCherryPi Says:

    Mrnaglfar, this is a very interesting discussion and I think I understand your point of view a lot better now. But I still think that there is a disconnect between what evolutionary psychologists are studying, how it is reported, and then how it gets discussed. It happens with other disciplines too, and it’s a topic that overall I’m very interested in.

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